GRIZZLY BEAR SAFARI
We made this trip with Gerry van der Walt of Wildeye, and travelled to Tweedsmuir Park Lodge in Bella Coola by small plane. As always, it was a logistical nightmare to get the heavy camera gear all packed and distributed through the cabin baggage so that it was not too heavy for the weight specifications.
For some reason I was expecting a more flat, coastal terrain, maybe because the salmon swim upstream from the sea. However, our destination was many miles inland. We had quite a hairy flight in a small plane over spectacular mountains to get to it, with a fair bit of dipping and swooping as air currents seized the plane and rocked it about.
We landed and were driven to the lodge, which was located in the very beautiful valley of the Bella Coola River. The members of our group were accommodated in log cabins with a fabulous view of imposing rocky mountains.
We had a meet and greet with our fellow photographers, and the schedule was explained to us. We dined very well in the main lodge. We knew most of our group already and had a convivial evening. Photo credit Zelinda de Cruz.
Next morning we were up with the dawn but had a choice to make: Coffee….or go down to the viewing platform to see bears? Easy…..Coffee! We enjoyed our coffee - but as we came out we spotted a bear walking through the cabins and along the little lake. I grabbed the camera and took a quick shot but only got his backside disappearing into the grass.
We were not allowed to walk down to the viewing platform with our gear until the bear was well gone. He was a big, aggressive male. We heard about how a male had attacked the cubs of a mother bear in front of horrified guests some time ago. He killed one cub before the mother came out fighting. Mother bears are very fierce in defence of their young and despite being much smaller and lighter than the male, she managed to rescue the other, injured cub.
Grizzly bears are dangerous creatures. It turned out our daughter had gone down as soon as it was light enough to see, having been presented with the same choice as us: Coffee?....Bear?.....But her choice was ……Bear! I took this image later.
She had luckily got inside the electric fence and up into the viewing platform before this bear came through, so she got excellent shots of him coming up from the river beside the viewing platform shown in the photo below. When we and the others were finally allowed to go down to the hide …..nada….not a bear to be seen. Looks like coffee first was a bad choice.
We had a yummy breakfast, and then went on a river drift. It was very hard to keep my long lens, dubbed Big Bertha, steady. I can’t hand-hold it. Even on the monopod I struggled to keep it still enough to get a shot. There was a lot of movement with the boatmen paddling, the boat skipping or scraping over rocks, and the river current swinging the boat around.
We found a bear which obviously had far too much to eat and was wedged into the fork of a tree, sleeping off its binge. The bears need to feed as much as possible to store adequate fat for their winter hibernation. This one was napping before returning to stuff itself some more.
It seemed pretty comfortable with one leg braced on the trunk and its back against a small tree. Every so often it would half open a bleary eye and scratch its overly full tummy. The ISO had to be very high to get a good enough shutter speed in the dark conditions so my photos were quite grainy but full of character nevertheless. I used Luminance to get rid of grain, in this one maybe too much!
The tree in which the bear snoozed had a blue rope swinging from it for children to jump into the river pool below.
I guess swimming for kids down at the river is off for now!
The bears were pretty well sated, scooping up exhausted, dying or dead salmon and eating a few bites before moving on to the next. This year (2017), over a million salmon come up the river. No wonder the bears had more than enough to eat! Bears are essential to the health of the forest, they carry salmon carcasses into the trees and fertilize the forest floor.
I lost track of time as we were busy, busy! However, I think it was the next morning that my husband somehow managed to be late. We were all in the vehicle waiting. First Gerry, then Phil, went to look for him. Eventually he was found, luckily just in time, because when we got down to the boats there were bears on the other side of the river from the boat ramp! I think the photo below illustrates how bears came to be given the pig-related names sow for a female and boar for a male.
The guides were worried that we wouldn’t get there in time - because of my husband. How embarrassing. I’m so glad we made it. Just imagine - his name would be mud if we didn’t! We took these photos standing on the opposite bank of the river.
After a good while those bears moved on downriver and it was safe for us to get into the boats. I really enjoyed drifting downriver. It was peaceful and soothing with the river water chuckling along, plus stunning scenery of rainforest and spectacular mountains.
The next day we got up and my man looked out of the window. He said, ‘It’s pissing down rain. I’m not going out in that!’ We had a leisurely coffee in our cabin and I wrote up yesterday's experience. At breakfast Gerry had a conference with a few people and it was decided, sensibly, not to go for a day hike with a picnic lunch! I was relieved, my knee is not up to day hikes, though everyone tells me it will be fine and I struggle on trying not to whinge.
Instead, Gerry held a session on Lightroom, while some of us went down to the roofed viewing platform on the river bank. Phil very patiently taught me about taking panoramas using multiple images and then blending them in Lightroom. This one was taken on another day. There's a bear in there, can you find it? You have to be very careful to only get one frame with a moving subject in it or the combined panorama will not work. I was happy with this panorama.
I took a few photos of rain falling, with varying success.
Three hours later nothing much had happened except that mosquitoes came calling. I amused myself trying to capture one perched on Big Bertha, admiring itself in the mirror. We had repellent because I’d read a useful blog shared by Zz, about the possibility of mozzies and horseflies, and a stench from dying fish when photographing the salmon run. We didn’t have a problem with smell, no horse flies, and the mozzies only arrived on that one wet day. We were lucky.
Then I needed to go to the loo, as you do after three hours of waiting. We went up to our cabin, me saying ruefully that I was sure something would happen after I left. We were just preparing to go up and join in the Lightroom session when I spied Phil hurrying up from the hide looking frantic. A mother and cub had arrived just after we left! But of course!
Phil is such a dear for coming to tell us instead of taking his own photos.
We grabbed our gear and hurried down to the viewing platform, me hobbling much faster than usual!
We got some great photos of the playful year-old cub hunting with far more enthusiasm than skill.
It was so cute, jumping, pouncing, looking disappointed when it didn’t catch a salmon.
Hmmmmmmm........what do we have here?
Zz and Linda arrived in a hurry after Phil alerted those doing the Lightroom session, and I gave Linda a space next to me with a good view. We all got some great images of the little one shaking itself on the sand bank in front of the viewing platform.
She lost her balance, just like a kid who has made herself dizzy.
The cubs stay with their mother for three years if I remember correctly. Males try to kill the cubs so the mother will become receptive to mating again. This mother was very vigilant, keeping an eye out for males.
The mother was far more businesslike in her hunting than the cub, looking to put on sufficient fat to get her through the winter hibernation.
This photo shows her snorkelling, with her eyes below the water surface looking for salmon.
There are plenty of dead and dying salmon along the edges of the river but the bears prefer fresh if they can get it. We saw a few disdainful sniffs before the bears turned away from a salmon that wasn’t fresh enough!
The mother forged on upstream with her baby valiantly leaping through water too deep for it.
'Wait for me, wait for me..... momma..... please, wait for me!'
In the end they turned back and wended their way around the bend of the river out of sight of the viewing platform. What a fabulous experience! I was thrilled to have seen a mother bear and her cub, it made my day!
After lunch (the food was excellent and the company most enjoyable) we went on a series of short walks to see bears, but had no luck. Smooth river rocks proved very difficult for me to walk over, and I had a fall in the forest. No bears, but we did see a tree which bears had been using for a scratching post. The stripped bark began way higher than our heads!
Our guide pointed out a sad story in the sand – fish roe, bear prints, and white bald eagle poop. A female salmon had gone down to the sea, matured, and struggled about 70 km back upriver to spawn, but her life was taken by a bear. The roe, a special treat, was eaten before she could fulfil her purpose. The eagle came along later to get some easy pickings left by the bear.
The next day began with a plan to walk and then wait for a bear or two to hove into sight, instead of going on lots of short walks. We walked. Quite arduous for me. I had stem cell treatment to my knee this year and it is OK on flat surfaces - but the forest floor and rocky beaches? Not so much. I digress to show a photo of the mother and cub on the river bank.
We waited on a river beach for bears to show up. I sat on a rock. Most uncomfortable. Tried another rock. Knee got twisted. I hurt the other hip when I tried to get up. I hate the fricken walks! I should have stuck with my plan to stay at the lodge, try to cadge a ride on a boat, or go down to the viewing platform….they saw a mother bear and three cubs from the viewing platform today!
Practised slow shutter speed photos of the river rushing around rocks.
Then we went to another spot. Walk, pain, rocky beach, sat on an awful ridgy rock. Changed to a more comfy rock under a big fern. No bears. One of our number took a most unflattering photo of me under my fringe of fern looking like the wrath of God and shared it with everyone because she likes it! This is not her photo, I am incognito in this one - the way I like it!
If a bear came along the beach there's a chance it might not see me -which is good. I think we all know who would be last in a stampede of humans running away from a bear!
Took photos of the others on the beach. Did not share anything I thought was unflattering.
Lots of photos were taken of fish just under the water. They hover there, our guide told us, waiting for the right conditions of river flow and temperature.
The salmon are poised over the perfect sort of gravelly riverbed with water flowing over it quickly to give oxygen to the maturing eggs. That day the river was higher after the rain. The river level makes a difference to whether the salmon spawn or not. When conditions are just right, the females lay their eggs which the males fertilize. Then both males and females die.
We learned a huge amount, not just about bears, but about the salmon, too. They are absolutely crucial to the rest of the animals which depend on them for food. Salmon farms at the mouth of rivers can infect wild salmon with diseases and have an extremely detrimental effect on the whole ecosystem. These wild salmon have died naturally after breeding.
While waiting for a bear which never came, we started a competition to see who could snap a salmon jumping out of the water. Many and many a splash was photographed! It was incredibly hard to predict and have the camera pointed at the spot where the next jump would come.
I deleted hundreds of failed attempts at salmon leaping when it came time to edit about 5,000 photos, mine and my husband's - he never edits, but he helps carry my gear so we both do the heavy lifting in our different ways. Grateful thanks to Gerry for teaching me survey mode – it makes a huge difference. I'll post a bird photo here instead of another splash!
In the end our daughter won hands down by spotting a salmon jumping and then training her camera on a spot in front of its trajectory. The salmon obliged by leaping again and she nailed it! I didn't, so here's a shot of a curious bear instead.
On the way back to the vehicles I asked Zz to take a photo of me and my Sherpas. My husband is Sherpa number one, of course. Phil is Sherpa number two with Big Bertha on her tripod. He is a perfect gentleman and helped me so much, I am eternally grateful. Gerry joined in the fun and acted the part of Sherpa number three – though I don’t really have that much gear! One thing we really like about Gerry is that he has a very lively sense of humour.
I look like one of those old-fashioned lady explorers with my coterie. Photo credit to Zelinda de Cruz.
On the way back I asked if we could stop to take photos of an old trapper's cabin, now returning to the forest.
I loved the river drifts - no pain for my knee as we drifted along enjoying the spectacular beauty. The sound of water purling over rocks, the boatman skilfully guiding us through the rapids chatting about his life and the area, the brawny mountains piercing the sky above verdant green forest along the river banks – pure magic! We often saw birds, another highlight - like this heron.
This time we didn’t see bears until nearly the end of our drift. Then we came upon a magnificent male bear fishing.
He was very active, plunging into the water repeatedly to pounce on a fish.
Our position was not the best – another boat had arrived before us and the boatman had jumped into the water to hold it. We had to hold back so as not to run down on top of this boat, so they got front row seats and we were further back.
Even so, it was a fascinating sight.
He paused for a foot itch. (This photo is heavily cropped because we were further away.)
We all did our best to get good images, though an even longer lens would have been a help under the circumstances! I was very pleased with my image of the bear looking our way, with an unhappy salmon dangling from its mouth.
We spotted a bald eagle in a tree above. I took a few photos, then gave Big Bertha to my husband because he had a better angle as the boat swung around. This is his image.
The bear emerged from the river with a salmon and began walking along a log. Perfect composition! I grabbed my camera back and trained Big Bertha on the bear. Focal point in exactly the right spot........Yessssss!!!! But later I realised my man had changed the shutter speed while photographing the bald eagle. The speed was too slow and my images of the bear climbing up the log were not tack sharp, especially the flopping salmon. Dammit! It does not pay to share your camera.
We were having dinner on the final evening and my other half disappeared. I went to look for him. He had spotted deer grazing on the lawn in front of our cabin and was taking photos of them from our verandah. Below is one of his photographs of the lovely delicate creatures.
The light was fading fast but I had a turn and was very pleased with this one I took of a fawn's head.
On our last morning at the lodge we went down to the hide at sunrise. Even though no bears appeared it was ethereally lovely. The rising sun suffused the mountaintops with golden light. The river wound its way mysteriously into the distance while early morning mist lingered over the water. The Sony a7R Mk II does splendid panoramas and I was very pleased to capture the full glory of this scene which we had been enjoying every day, before we headed to the airport.
We had a great time at Tweedsmuir Park Lodge where we were very well looked after. The Wildeye team of Gerry and Phil were fantastic. A significant part of what they do well (apart from acting as sherpas) is to focus on the photographic experience of their clients rather than concentrating on getting their own shots. Each client is given lots of attention according to their needs and we have chosen to do several trips with Wildeye for this reason. Thank-you so much, Gerry van der Walt and Phil Symonds!
This last image of our group was set up by Gerry on the lodge steps just before we left. Gerry and Phil in the foreground, our daughter and I in the middle (I'm the shortie).